When playwright Tom Stoppard makes his main character a playwright, it is hard to separate fiction from autobiography. In this way, The Real Thing is somewhat of a polemic on love, fidelity, and talent, with their qualities of authenticity as well as pretension. But what writer worth his salt isn’t deep down trying to work something out from his real life?
The central figure here is Henry (Ewan McGregor), a commercially successful playwright, overly confident of his natural ability without being pompous. He does often experience writer’s block. The Real Thing opens on a scene from Henry’s current play on the boards. It is about adultery, a mirror on his private life. The star is his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), an actress complaining that the audience may mistake her character and the story for their real life. The irony is that one can’t help wondering how much of The Real Thing reflects Mr. Stoppard’s personal life at the time. If he had made Henry a politician or a plumber, one might not take this leap.
Henry and Charlotte’s marriage is stale. Charlotte has nothing left to say to Henry but constantly put him down. It is water off a duck’s back to Henry, since he is secretly in love with a younger actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is married to Max (Josh Hamilton), the male lead playing opposite Charlotte in Henry’s play. Since they are all friends, neither cuckolded spouse suspects the affair. Annie wants to get it over with and expose their relationship, whereas Henry is reluctant, perhaps because he and Charlotte have a teen daughter Debbie (Madeline Weinstein). However, Debbie’s one scene doesn’t involve the hurt of her parents’ divorce. By the time we meet her, she is seventeen and running off with a cheesy musician. This issue isn’t integral to the play, and this scene’s only value is to see her divorced parents’ civilized cooperation. It is a bit of a writer’s cheat, this digression, as Debbie serves as a mouthpiece tool for the adolescent’s view of love and sex.
I jumped ahead. Henry and Annie’s secret affair is discovered when Max finds Henry’s handkerchief in their car. Max becomes a pathetic, broken hearted husband that makes Annie have less sympathy for him. Annie is madly in love with Henry, though he appears detached. His greatest delight is reserved for American pop oldies, a deliberate counter stance to embracing classical music. Annie laments that Henry never shows a tinge of jealousy. He can’t understand that feeling since Annie has given him no reason to be jealous.
The time sequence skips two years, and Henry and Annie are now a married couple. For several years, Annie has been an advocate to free Brodie (Alex Breaux), a young Scottish soldier imprisoned for setting fire to a war memorial wreath in protest of missiles hidden in a small British town. Brodie has written a play riddled with politically clichéd drivel. But Annie convinces Henry to rewrite it to gain attention for Brodie’s cause. When Henry insists Brodie can’t write, Annie accuses him of snobbish superiority.
Annie is off to do a play in Glasgow where she has a flirtation with her young co-star Billy (Ronan Raftery). The once emotionally complacent Henry has deteriorated into an undignified jealous lover, suspecting Annie is cheating on him with Billy despite her denial. Henry’s new vulnerability seems to attest to his finally being able to love.
Mr. McGregor is lovely to watch, as he journeys through his emotional arc. Ms. Gyllenhaal is magnificent as a strong, yet passionate woman. Working with accents can inhibit an actor’s truthfulness, but Ms. Gyllenhaal’s incorporation of a British-like accent is seamless. The best scenes are between Mr. McGregor and Ms. Gyllenhaal. The most compelling scene is when Henry crumbles from jealousy. Ms. Nixon’s portrayal of the wise-cracking first wife errs a bit into bitchiness. More subtext, nastiness coming from hurt, and more charm in her quips are needed to round out the character. Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Raftery, Ms. Weinstein, and Mr. Breaux are a fine supporting cast.
Mr. Stoppard is a wordsmith extraordinaire. Though he gets carried away sometimes with his words, it is a treat on this side of the Atlantic to hear the greatness of the English language. His dialogue is full of the wit only the Brits can do. Max has a line in Henry’s play, “I must say I take my hat off to you, coming home with Rembrandt place mats for your mother. It’s those little touches that lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style.”
The Real Thing
WITH: Josh Hamilton (Max), Cynthia Nixon (Charlotte), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Annie), Ronan Raftery (Billy), Madeline Weinstein (Debbie), Alex Breaux (Brodie).
By Tom Stoppard; directed by Sam Gold; sets by David Zinn; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Bray Poor; costumes by Kaye Voyce; hair design, Tom Watson; dialect coach, Kate Wilson; production stage manager, Charles Means; production management, Aurora Productions; casting by Jim Carnahan, CSA & Carrie Gardner, CSA; general manager, Denise Cooper; press rep, Polk & Co. Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, Artistic Director, Todd Haimes. At American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. For tickets, call 212.719.1300. Through January 4, 2015. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission.